article first appeared in
by Peter Lucia
The name "Arthur Pryor" is still music to the ears of numerous older residents of the Jersey Shore. While many people throughout the country -- and the world -- remember the name, Arthur Pryor the great bandmaster was a particular source of pride in and around Asbury Park: he was chief "musicman" there for many years.
Pryor was born in Saint Joseph, Missouri, in 1870, of a musical family. At six he began to study several instruments. The valve trombone was his special love; and his astonishing skill caused him to be billed "The Boy Wonder" when he performed with a Chicago band at age 11. His innovative expressiveness and phenomenally fast slide technique would earn him the title "Pagannini of the trombone." Wherever Pryor went, excited band leaders sought to employ him. In 1889 he joined the Alessandro Liberati band and toured the West. Shortly after, he became director of the Stanley Opera Company, in Denver, where his skill on piano and his vast repertoire was prized
In 1892, John Philip Sousa, the nation's premier bandmaster, introduced his new group to Plainfiled, NJ. It was here that he heard of Pryor. Sousa contacted him and asked him to audition. Though the young man was reluctant to leave his settled post with the opera, he took "Mr. Stars and Stripes" up on his offer and came to New York. Pryor stunned Sousa's players with his audition -- so much so, that the first-chair trombonist offered to step down. Pryor played his first solo with Sousa's band at 22 -- one of an estimated 10,000 he performed in his 12 years with this organization. As trombonist and Sousa's assistant conductor, he played before the greatest audiences of America as well as the crowns of Europe, among them King Edward II and Kaiser Wilhelm of Prussia. To Pryor's list of international raves, Sousa added, "I do not believe there was a man in this world his equal while he was with me."
A boardwalk concert, Asbury Park
In 1903 he formed his own band. It premiered at the Majestic Theater in New York and would go on to make six coast-to-coast tours. In 1904 he settled in Asbury Park and later purchased a farm near Long Branch. 1904 marked the beginning of his 17 consecutive summers in Asbury. His band would parade through the streets at the start of each season -- he in his spotless white uniform -- and at other times entertain throngs in the Casino, Arcade or on a boardwalk bandstand. Besides traditional works, people delighted in hearing some of Pryor's nearly 300 published compositions: "Queen Titania", composed for Asbury Park's Baby Parade, "The Jersey Shore", and his famous "The Whistler and His Dog" (published in 1905, it was later the theme of the "Officer Joe Bolton" TV show**). He claimed that he envisioned Asbury Park as the musical center of America, possibly of the world.
In the 1920s and '30s, Pryor, who had been a pioneer in band recording for the Victor company, worked in radio, becoming affiliated with NBC. After retiring to his farm he spent time teaching and was even elected to the Monmouth County Board of Freeholders. Occasionally he would get together with old band members for a engagement in Asbury. It was during a special comeback to this city, in the summer of 1942, that he suffered a fatal stroke. He left a wife, two sons (both men well-established musicians) and three generations of admirers.
Note: **For years most local history folks thought it was the theme to "The Leave it to Beaver" TV show, but this has proved incorrect.
(Arthur Pryor's Band, Whistling by Billy Murray and Margaret McKee - 1925)
trombone, gold plated and engraved,
Postcard showing Pryor, the Asbury Casino and Arcade
Howard Johnson's on the Boardwalk at 5th Avenue houses